Should We Count on Companies to Protect Us From Toxic Chemicals?

There's a good chance you missed one of the biggest but most under-reported business stories of 2013: Retail and manufacturing giants -- including Walmart, Target, Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson -- are abandoning toxic chemicals in personal care and other products in favor of safer ingredients.

This market shift is a direct response to mounting scientific evidence of harm from chemical exposure and to a groundswell of consumer demand spurred by groups like the Breast Cancer Fund, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and many others. It is an unmitigated good to have more non-toxic products on more store shelves available to more people.

But peek behind this story of voluntary corporate action and you'll see a federal system that is failing to protect the public from toxic chemicals in our everyday products; a government so stymied that its work on chemicals management has been easily eclipsed by a handful of companies making a few corporate policy changes.

Right now Congress has before it bills that, if amended well, would significantly reform our ancient laws governing chemical use in things we and our families come into contact with every day -- everything from baby shampoo to household cleaners to shower curtains. But so far, Congress has failed to act.

And while it's significant that companies are stepping into the void, voluntary policies made in corporate boardrooms are not enough to keep us safe from toxic exposures linked to cancer, infertility and other serious health problems. A closer look at some of these new corporate policies reveal their limitations. Walmart announced it will no longer sell personal care and cleaning products containing any of 10 problematic chemicals the company has prioritized for removal, but is refusing to make the list public. Target plans to rate manufacturers' products based on the toxicity of ingredients (among other factors), but hasn't committed to making the ratings public. J&J and P&G are removing some very problematic chemicals from their personal care products, but others will remain. Simply put, we can't rely on these companies to voluntarily make the kind of transformative changes we need to ensure our everyday products are free of chemicals linked to disease.

So while we applaud companies that are making and selling products with safer ingredients, to truly protect our health we need comprehensive reform, and that's only possible by making our democracy work for us. Let's commit to using our people power to demand -- louder and more firmly than ever -- that our government do its job and make sure that no company is allowed to sell us products containing chemicals that cause cancer and other diseases. Let's work to make the big story of 2014 that Congress finally outpaced companies by passing laws that restrict toxic chemicals in our everyday products. It's about time.